MIT has signed an agreement with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to redevelop the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, with aims of turning the federally owned 14-acre parcel in Kendall Square into a more vibrant mixed-use site that will benefit MIT’s mission and the Cambridge community.
The agreement means that MIT will ultimately acquire most of the parcel — which President L. Rafael Reif described in a letter to the MIT community today as “an opening that will not come again: 14 acres, mostly underdeveloped, nearly contiguous with our campus and in the thick of Kendall Square.”
Last November, after a lengthy bidding process, the GSA selected MIT as its initial partner to construct a new federal building on the Volpe Center site, which sits in close proximity to MIT’s campus on Broadway, across from the Boston Marriott Cambridge. In exchange, following construction of the new building, the Institute will receive ownership of the balance of the property, which it will then develop. Today’s agreement marks the GSA’s official acceptance of MIT’s bid of $750 million.
Two identical MIT-sponsored community meetings are planned for Thursday, Feb. 9, at noon and again at 6 p.m. More details will follow.
“When this parcel became available, it felt obvious to us that we should pursue this unique opportunity to work with the City and our Cambridge neighbors to help shape the future of the Kendall Square neighborhood, so that it would serve both MIT and the broader community,” Reif wrote. “From the entrepreneurial energy and culture of its hundreds of start-ups, to the research might and market reach of its major corporate players, Kendall Square is a vital source of opportunities, talent and resources to help the people of MIT deliver their ideas to the world. The emerging strengths of this ecosystem already offer powerful advantages to MIT; it is now clear that our future success depends on making sure that Kendall succeeds as a place – a place where people want to live, work and play, and a place that makes our city stronger, too.”
“I am inspired by the possibilities, and I look forward to working with many of you as we work to shape the future of this remarkable place,” Reif added.
Many details of MIT’s redevelopment plan remain to be determined, and will be subject to a process of integrating important input from the community, as well as a formal review and approval by the City of Cambridge. But the Institute will be guided by extensive study and analysis of Kendall Square and the Volpe parcel that has taken place over the last several years: The City of Cambridge, through a variety of community-focused processes, has developed a comprehensive set of urban planning principles that address the Volpe parcel’s scale and uses, and encourages the creation of a dynamic area with housing, open community spaces, and retail and other commercial venues. In 2015, Cambridge filed and advanced a comprehensive rezoning proposal for the parcel.
MIT Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz says the Institute will use the redevelopment opportunity to help foster the continued trajectory of Kendall Square as a world-class innovation hub. This will, he says, enhance academic-industry connections and help MIT-invented technologies move more quickly from lab to market.
“We fully expect that a developed Volpe parcel will contribute to creating an even more exciting Kendall Square,” Ruiz says. “MIT’s engagement with the Volpe property will allow us to further help shape the local innovation ecosystem and create a great neighborhood. We expect to work with the city and community to create a development that provides long-term benefits for our industry collaborators, our neighbors, the City of Cambridge, and for the Institute itself.”
MIT’s purchase of the Volpe Center property is being administered by the Institute’s investment arm, the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo), which manages the assets that comprise MIT’s endowment, its employee pension program, and its real estate portfolio.
Owned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Volpe Center has been at its current location for 45 years, surrounded by Broadway, Third Street, Binney Street, and the Mid-Block Connector. At approximately 14 acres, the site includes six buildings, open areas of landscaped land, and two parking lots that take up most of the land area.
In 2015, the GSA invited bids for a “development partner” on a Volpe Center redesign project; the GSA selected MIT as the winning bidder in November. As part of the agreement, MIT will design and construct a new federal facility on approximately 4 of the 14 acres, which will replace around 375,000 square feet now scattered across six buildings. In exchange, MIT will work with Cambridge to plan a vibrant mix of uses, including commercial innovation space, residential and retail facilities, and open space on the remaining 10 acres, which will be owned by MIT.
As a guide, MIT will turn to the city’s rezoning proposal for the Volpe Center based on the extensive, Cambridge-led Kendall Square Central Square (“K2C2”) planning study . For the study, a committee of residents, property owners, and business and institutional representatives spent a year and a half conducting independent research and gathering community input from public meetings, workshops, and events to create a new design framework for Kendall Square areas. The study concluded with a final report  in 2013.
The part of the K2C2 proposal dedicated to revamping the Volpe Center’s district, PUD-KS , calls for more mixed-use activity dedicated to fostering innovation and a stronger sense of community. Key suggestions include:
- new housing, including a mix of affordable, moderate, and market-rate units;
- new commercial office and laboratory space, including innovation space for startups, small companies, and individuals;
- ground-floor retail or public-facing venues in most of the buildings along the primary streets that are currently inactive;
- new open spaces for public gathering and recreation that encourage a sense of community;
- roads and pathways through the block that establish new connections between East Cambridge, the Kendall/MIT MBTA station, and the Charles River; and
- sustainability features that address climate change and promote resiliency.
The Volpe Center redevelopment plan is part of ongoing efforts — by MIT, the city, and others — to shape the future growth of Kendall Square. Last May, MIT received special permits from the Cambridge Planning Board for the Kendall Square Initiative , which aims to reimagine the district’s streetscape — using land already owned by MIT — with more vibrancy and diversity. The Initiative is currently under way, beginning with construction of underground utilities and a garage. Following that will come new lab and research space, housing for MIT students and the community, open spaces for recreation and socializing, and a variety of retail venues.
Ruiz says MIT’s experience with the Kendall Square Initiative will inform its Volpe Center redevelopment efforts. “We see the tremendous contributions that dynamic street fronts, good retail, conveniently located housing, and active open space can bring to mixed-use developments, and we plan to follow a similar framework as we envision the future of the Volpe site with our city and neighborhood colleagues,” he says.
MIT will work collaboratively with the federal government to initiate the design of the new Volpe facility and will begin a process for revising the zoning of the site. It will work with the city to create a “planned unit development,” which will define the specifics of a mixed-use parcel. MIT will also work closely with all stakeholders, including the city’s Volpe Working Group and the MIT faculty-led Volpe Working Group — chaired by Steve Hall, professor of aeronautics and astronautics — to advance the rezoning proposal.
[From the MIT News  / by Rob Matheson; image: Les Vants Aerial Photos]